Local authorities and oral history in processes of conflict and integration in Guinea

In a region which has experienced armed conflict and political instability for the last decade, with communities facing processes of state and/or regional disintegration, local potentials for integration shall be studied. Within these processes the manipulation and employment of oral histories as political power resources is of special interest.

In this study, integration and conflict in rural contexts are connected to administrative and political structures and the changes they undergo throughout time. The revolutionary, yet centralised one-party-system Guinea knew after its independence 1958 has been under review since the end of 1980´s. Under the pretext of democratisation and liberalisation, Guinea has experienced decentralisation projects, with increasing cooperation of international and regional organisations, triggering the development of a fledgling civil society. Local councils are elected and the far-reaching powers of the central administration officially limited, while the administration is itself undergoing a de-concentration process, rendering more autonomy to local-level governance.

In the research area of Forécariah in the coastal west of Guinea, these processes shift the established power relations and alter actors´ possibilities to participate in the local power play. This way, older and younger institutions get entangled into networks of official and informal interdependencies and hierarchies, with descendents of village founders or ruling houses constituting hubs of these complex networks. How do these “traditional” actors select, manipulate and place their historic capital into the local discourse? How do newly elected local councillors and alien administrative staff relate to this history-centred power struggle?

Local elders, councillors and officers attending a decentralisation seminar, Forécariah

The democratisation discourses of international and national, public and non-governmental organisations have to adapt to the local level governance and administration which are informed by the need for historic authenticity of power. This argument gains political and economic relevance in questions of land control, development projects and reforms of administrative units. How are these local discourses linked to the national and international ones, and what consequences do they have on local actors and institutions as well as on the Guinean discourse of democracy?
As an aftermath of the recent violence, the state’s legitimacy to define social order has been challenged and sentiments of a national resurrection are voiced. How are oral histories integrated into these discourses and how is it being affected by them, when the previously clear-cut lines between the powerful and the ruled, le pouvoir and le peuple become blurred?

In this context, local (migration) history can play ambivalent roles, as it is closely linked to ethnic identities and access to land. In Forécariah, Malinké traders had arrived to settle and explore the coastal trading routes during the 18th century, islamising the Susu and MmEni of the area. Over time, they were established as the land-owning elite, became ´Susu-ised` and today claim to be the first settlers and therefore rulers of the historic region called Moreah. The patron-client relations between the different families are mitigated by marriage relations and ethnically heterogeneous women´s groups, the sErE; nevertheless they do not override underlying hierarchies.
However, these relations provide elements for integrative and exclusive group identifications, according to the respective conflict lines. The interdependencies of different local institutions and the prominent role ´traditional` politicians play in the networks can stabilise local communities in times of political and institutional turbulence as Guinea has been experiencing for the last two years. At the same time, the flexibilities of the network allow for canalisation or escalation of conflicts, depending on the interests that various actors invest in the particular matter.

Go to Editor View